WINCHESTER, Tenn.—A Tennessee federal judge has dismissed a motion for summary judgment by mechanical rubber goods manufacturer Tepro Inc. in an age discrimination suit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The EEOC filed the case against Tepro in November 2012 before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, Winchester Division.
It brought the suit on behalf of a group of Tepro employees, between their early 40s and mid-60s, who claimed Tepro management demoted them because of their age.
According to the EEOC complaint, Winchester-based Tepro has Tech II and Tech III classifications for its employees.
In January 2009, the complaint said, Tepro told its work force that Tech II employees would have to be able to handle molding.
Soon after, it said, the company began reassigning older employees from Tech II to Tech III positions.
Without telling those employees, many of whom had worked for Tepro for years, the company adjusted their seniority dates to the date when they began as Tech III employees, according to the complaint.
Then it began laying off those employees, it said.
The EEOC asked the court for a permanent injunction against Tepro, in order for the company to give equal employment opportunities to employees older than 40, and restitution to the employees represented in the suit.
In its January 2013 reply brief, Tepro said terminations of the employees named in the lawsuit were legitimate and completely unrelated to age.
“Defendant specifically denies discriminating against the identified individuals or any unidentified individuals on the basis of their age,” the company said.
In an order dated Sept. 28, 2015, Judge Harry S. Mattice Jr. of the Eastern Tennessee court ruled not only on Tepro's motion for summary judgment, but also motions from both Tepro and the EEOC to preclude the testimony of each other's expert witness.
According to Mattice, Tepro faced declining sales in 2008 and sought to reduce its work force.
When a voluntary layoff/retirement program failed to cut the necessary number of workers, the company gave employees the choice of being Tech II or Tech III workers, with Tech II workers receiving higher pay but also having to mold products, he said.
Tepro disseminated a form to workers explaining that reclassification to Tech III would mean lower pay, but not that it meant loss of seniority, according to Mattice.
“There were no Tech III employees under the age of 40 after the reclassification,” he wrote.
Shortly thereafter, when Tepro decided to terminate employees, it chose to fire the Tech III workers, Mattice wrote. Some 35 Tech III workers were laid off permanently, with another three electing layoff or retirement, he said.
Tepro filed for summary judgment on the grounds that the EEOC had no direct evidence of discrimination and had not proven its prima facie case, according to the judge.
He agreed with Tepro that the EEOC failed to show discrimination against older Tepro employees as compared with younger ones.
However, the EEOC's circumstantial and statistical evidence was enough to support the charges, he said.
Tepro asked Mattice to preclude the testimony of the EEOC's expert witness, Richard Tonowski, alleging his testimony was unreliable and irrelevant to understand the issues in the case.
Mattice ruled that Tonowski's testimony was admissible.
“His analysis shows a less than one-in-10,000 chance that the significant difference in the age of employees who were reclassified versus those who were not reclassified was the result of chance alone,” he wrote.
However, Mattice admitted only part of the testimony of Tepro's rebuttal witness, David Griffin, whom Tepro hired to review Tonowski's report.
“As a general proposition, the court believes that Griffin's testimony is reliable and relevant to the issues in this action, and specifically to the weight and credibility of Tonowski's expert statistical analysis and opinions,” Mattice wrote.
“The court, however, believes that portions of Griffin's report may exceed the scope of simply responding to Tonowski's expert opinions,” according to the judge.
Attorneys for the EEOC and for Tepro could not be reached for comment.